By PAM HARBAUGH
Grit and glamor, honesty and humor and, yes, love and hate, combine in Jennifer Hoppe-House’s remarkable new play, “Bad Dog,” currently on stage in a beautiful and stirring production at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre.
This compelling play concerns a familiar subject — alcoholism and its effects on family, and more urgently, on the person suffering from the disease. But Ms. Hoppe-House’s layered treatment raises “Bad Dog” above cliché, bringing us into three gut-wrenching days in the life of alcoholic Molly Drexler, a Hollywood screen writer living in an upscale home outside Los Angeles.
Rather than beginning with conventional exposition, Ms. Hoppe-House steps into the tradition of modern playwrights like Arthur Miller, and allows intermittent exposition to season her play, peeling back layer after layer until we finally discover the kernel of truth propelling it all.
It opens with Becky fumbling with the front door key. Behind her, Linda, her sister, impatiently tells her how to turn the key. Immediately we know that there is tension between these two and that this is not their home. Soon, Molly enters with her wife, Abby. We learn that Molly has fallen off the wagon and driven her Prius through the wall of her fashionable home.
More layers –the sisters are smart, educated women each with her unique character traits. Three of Orlando area’s best professional actresses portray these multi-faceted women with electric timing and vivid strength. Ginger Lee McDermott fascinates as the beat-up Molly, digging deep into the character’s pain and denial, eventually showing us wounds that will never heal; Suzanne O’Donnell slips into another skin as Linda, a no-nonsense butchy reporter quick to add salt to any wound she can find while hiding her own; and Anne Hering radiates as Becky, the loving sister who has led a conventional and, from one perspective, a “smaller” life than her two sisters and the one who makes us wonder what she has done to muddle through the same poison into which they were all born.
Eventually, Molly reveals the impetus that threw her off the wagon – the death of her pet dog. Although she dismisses it with wry humor, she is not able to cope.
An intervention of sort ensues, bringing in the complete extended, utterly fascinating, but highly dysfunctional family.
The remarkable Elizabeth T. Murff is splendid as Lois, Molly’s pestering mother. William Metzo paints the father with an intriguing touch of bafflement and narcissism.
Glady Rodriguez (a Puerto Rican soap opera star), is the complicated step-mother, Sondra, a pot-smoking, bigoted former topless waitress who now happily perches herself onto the moral high-ground. Jennifer Bonner brings warmth and tender strength to Abby, the sole character who brings sanity and equilibrium to the story.
This fascinating mix of characters creates Molly’s train-wreck life and we cannot help but watch. While some of the dark comedy banter makes you laugh out loud, the quiet emotional climax of the play touches you deeply.
Mark Routhier brings a delicate, natural touch to his direction – weaving characters in and out of confrontations while allowing the fine cast their nuanced impulses. The pacing accelerates to that riveting climax then slows in a smart albeit brief denouement.
And, really…the visuals. Oh my. Scenic designer Bob Phillips has quite a swan song in “Bad Dog.” Mr. Phillips takes the very small acting space in the intimate Goldman Theater and turns it into an open kitchen, living room, outdoor lanai and second story bedroom in a stylish home. From the large windows upstage hang white curtains. Décor includes a photo of the dog the couple lost; next to it is a ferocious Foo Dog, the meaning of which becomes clear during the play.
Using light to paint the familiar in theatrical manner, Holly Stollard’s lighting design luxuriates in mood and setting.
Yes, alcoholism, drugs and dysfunction might be subjects many have the blessing to ignore. But you can’t turn your eyes away from Ms. Hoppe-House’s hypnotic storytelling in “Bad Dog.” It gets you in its grip and blows you away with its honesty.
SIDEBAR: In an audience talk-back, Mr. Routhier revealed that Mr. Phillips is leaving Orlando Shakes after 20 years of top notch, artistically glorious work as its resident designer. The award winning designer is production designer for “Sesame Street” and has six Emmys. It has been a joy and a privilege to have viewed his work during these 20 years.
SIDE ‘O GRITS: “Bad Dog” runs through May 3 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando. Tickets are $20 to $45 with $12 student rush tickets available one hour before curtain. Adult audience only. Call 407-447-1700 or visit www.OrlandoShakes.org.